Friday, January 5, 2007

NAIROBI, Kenya — U.S. Navy warships yesterday stepped up patrols off Somalia, boarding fishing boats and oil tankers to search for al Qaeda agents who fled after their Islamist allies were chased into hiding.

At the same time, the State Department’s chief Africa diplomat, Jendayi Frazer, met with Ethiopia’s prime minister for the first time since Ethiopian troops led the advance that crushed the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union that had ruled much of Somalia until a few weeks ago.

Miss Frazer hoped peacekeepers drawn from African nations would be deployed in Somalia “by the end of January.”

Uganda responded yesterday, saying it was ready to send peacekeepers as soon as its parliament approves the plan, Reuters news agency reported.

Offshore, the USS Ramage, a guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Bunker Hill, both from the U.S. 5th Fleet, were among several vessels dispatched from the British-led Combined Task Force 150, based in Bahrain, to waters off Somalia.

“Coalition forces will continue routine operations in this unstable area as long as the need exists for our presence,” said the task force’s commander, Commodore Bruce Williams of Britain’s Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, a reported audio tape message by al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader surfaced today, urging Somali Islamists to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla campaign of suicide and other forms of attacks against Ethiopian forces in Somalia, Reuters news agency reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“As happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the world’s strongest power was defeated by the campaigns of the mujahedeen troops going to heaven, so its slaves shall be defeated on the Muslim lands of Somalia,” said Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“You must ambush, mine, raid and [carry out] martyrdom campaigns so that you can wipe them out,” he said.

The tape was posted on a Web site used by militant Islamist groups.

The United States reportedly has played a key role behind the scenes in the recent clashes in Somalia. Analysts say this contributed to the sudden, complete routing of the Islamic Courts Union.

“All of us in the international community were quite surprised how fast the [Islamist movement] melted away and lost support,” said Miss Frazer, assistant secretary of state for Africa.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.S. government would provide an initial $16 million package of humanitarian aid to Somalia for food, relief supplies and help for refugees.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would be open to more short- and medium-term assistance for Somalia, saying Islamist militia forces still could prove a threat to the shaky government in Mogadishu.

Miss Frazer said U.S. intelligence suspected the Islamist leaders had been hiding in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, but that they may have fled and their whereabouts were unknown.

Islamist leaders are being hunted near Somalia’s border with Kenya. Kenya has closed its side of the border to stop the militias from fleeing, but said it was not blocking refugees from Somalia. However, aid agencies have complained that closing the border leaves 1.8 million Somalis without access to humanitarian assistance.

Security sources in Nairobi said intelligence from U.S. spy satellites had been passed to Ethiopian defense forces ahead of an attack Tuesday on a convoy in southern Somalia, which was said to include Islamic Courts leaders.

Four Ethiopian helicopters dropped six bombs on the position, Kenyan police said, but failed to destroy the convoy. U.S. military officials declined to comment.

Ethiopian forces helped Somalia’s internationally recognized interim government drive out the Islamists from Mogadishu last week. The Islamists have vowed to carry out guerrilla attacks across Somalia and in Ethiopia.

• Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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